Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Best Reads of 2018 Part 5


I read 214 books in 2018 so when I was getting ready to do my Best Reads of 2018 feature, it was very difficult to narrow it down. Some of them were new releases, some were just new to me, and some of them are re-reads but all really stuck with me and found a lasting place in my heart and library.  I finally narrowed it down to 49 books broken into five parts.  Part 5 features my favorite reads from November & December of 2018 each containing my original review.

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Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4


The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree by Selina Kray
Summary:
November Book of the Month
Stoker & Bash #2
When will She open Rebecca Northcote’s box?

Finding lost poodles and retrieving stolen baubles is not how DI Tim Stoker envisioned his partnership with his lover, Hieronymus Bash. So when the police commissioner's son goes missing, he's determined to help, no matter what secrets he has to keep, or from whom.

When a family member is kidnapped, Hiero moves heaven and earth to rescue them. Even if that means infiltrating the Daughters of Eden, a cult of wealthy widows devoted to the teachings of Rebecca Northcote and the mysterious contents of her box. The Daughters' goodwill toward London's fallen women has given them a saintly reputation, but Hiero has a nose for sniffing out a fraud. He will need to draw on some divine inspiration to rattle the pious Daughters.

Like weeds gnarling the roots of Eden's fabled tree, Tim and Hiero's cases intertwine. Serpents, secrets, and echoes from Hiero's past lurk behind every branch. Giving in to temptation could bind them closer together—or sever their partnership forever.

Original Review November 2018:
DI Tim Stoker never saw lost pets and stolen trinkets in his future when he partnered up with his lover Hieronymus Bash so when his boss' son is missing, he jumps at the opportunity to find him.  Hiero in turn is using everything available to find a family member who is also missing.  When the Daughters of Eden come into the mix, will the two and their friends be able to work together to sniff out the fraud as well as find the missing persons?  And what does it mean for Stoker and Bash, when their different tactics get in the way?

I don't often say this, and trust me when I say it because I am a HUGE series reader, The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree is even better than The Fangs of Scavo which is saying something because that was a pretty awesome read in itself.  As fun as Stoker and Bash were when they met, watching them grow together(both good and bad) is even better.  Don't get me wrong, they have a long way to go to truly find their HEA but with Fruit they are well on their way . . . eventually😉.

As for the case, well you know I won't touch on that because in a mystery every little tidbit can be a spoiler but I will say that the author kept me guessing right up to the big reveal.  That doesn't happen very often, not because my ability of deduction is great but I've been reading/watching mysteries since before I knew what a mystery was which means I have seen pretty much everything when it comes to the "who done it?" genre.  The mystery is a lovely blend of fiction and fact with amazing historical accuracies, yes a few liberties were taken but nothing that ruins the historical flavor of the story.

As for Stoker and Bash, well they are absolutely brilliant.  Heat, both in actions and words, is never doubted but their ability to navigate each one's lack of willingness to talk about their pasts with the here-and-now left me in tears as well as giggles.  As for their merry(or not-so-merry) band of comrades, they not only add to the detecting part of the story but the reader also sees just how they are more than allies, they have become a family.  Hiero and Kip may have a long way to go before they are completely open with each other about everything they have seen and done that has made them who they are but in The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree they make giant leaps forward toward that goal.  I for one can't wait to see what the future holds for these two and their family of misfits.

If you are asking me do you have to read The Fangs of Scavo first, I would say yes.  The cases don't connect but the relationships are continuously growing and a few references are made to the Scavo case so not having read book one I feel would definitely leave you, perhaps not confused or lost but certainly missing something.  Selina Kray is most definitely an author to keep your eye on.

RATING: 

Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane
Summary:
France, 1915

Lieutenant Tom Donald envies everything about fellow officer Frank Foden—his confidence, his easy manner with the men in the trenches, the affectionate letters from his wife. Frank shares these letters happily, drawing Tom into a vicarious friendship with a woman he's never met. Although the bonds of friendship forged under fire are strong, Tom can't be so open with Frank—he's attracted to men and could never confess that to anyone.

When Frank is killed in no-man's-land, he leaves behind a mysterious request for Tom: to deliver a sealed letter to a man named Palmer. Tom undertakes the commission while on leave—and discovers that almost everything he thought he knew about Frank is a lie…

Re-Read Review November 2018:
Having read my original review there really isn't much I can add here.  Promises Made Under Fire is about friendships and balancing what we think we know and what we find out.  Watching Tom face that scale is equally heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Charlie Cochrane has a knack for not only setting the scene when it comes to WW1 era stories but also perfectly blending realism, fiction, not making the story into a school lesson, and doing it all while completely entertaining the reader. Her respect for the era comes alive with Tom's journey of discovery and that only furthers to heighten my love of the story and I'm already looking forward to the next re-read.

Original Review November 2016:
Sometimes life throws us on an unexpected journey that may appear unwanted but leads us exactly where we should be and Promises Made Under Fire is a prime example of just that.  When Tom's friend and fellow officer Frank is killed he finds a letter left to him asking him to visit Frank's mother.  When Tom is home and visits he finds more questions than answers but when he finally discovers the answers will they be what he expected, will they bring him some unexpected happiness, or will they throw everything he thought he knew about his friend for a loop?  For those answers, you will have to read Promises for yourself and trust me you won't be disappointed.  Once again, Charlie Cochrane takes us into the era of The Great War with scenes of the frontlines and the homefront, she does it with such devotion to detail that you feel you are right there.  Whether you are a history lover or not, if you love a good story with believable characters than you will definitely want to add this one to your reading list.

RATING:

Calon Lân by Elin Gregory
Summary:
As war rages in France, battles are also being fought on the Home Front.

Bethan Harrhy, farmer's wife, does her best to keep her family happy as prices rise and the weather worsens. Nye, her husband, is angry and worried. Alwyn, her brother, is injured and shaken by his experiences in the trenches. Her baby is teething and there's another on the way. Surely having her brother's best friend to stay, another face, another voice, another pair of hands, can only be a good thing? But when Joe arrives, Bethan is forced to confront ideas she had never even guessed at and makes a terrible mistake.

With conflict at home and abroad, can there be a happy ending for any of them?

Original Review November 2018:
Having come home from the war early due to injuries, Alwyn sets out to help his sister and her husband on the farm but more hands are needed.  When Alwyn's friend and fellow soldier answers the call, nothing will ever be the same for any of them.  Will the four of them find peace and be able to work together and maybe even find some happiness?

I wish there were more World War One era stories in the M/M genre so when I find one I tend to just gobble it up so I am not sure how this one slipped my sites for a whole year.  Having finally read Calon Lân I can honestly say it is amazing.  As it is a short story/novella I won't go into too much but I do want to say that Alwyn and Joe are wonderfully written and Bethan definitely has her hands full keeping the peace in her home.  As for the author, I think its pretty clear that Elin Gregory respects the past and does a wonderful job balancing reality and fiction to bring the reader a healthy glimpse of a time gone by.

As for Alwyn and Joe, well of course you want to see them get their HEA but whether they do or not is something you have to read for yourself.  Don't even get me started on Bethan's husband, Nye.  I understand and respect his frustrations but I also wanted to bang his head against the wall more than once or at least make sure he ran into a door frame or two . . . or six😉.

Would I have liked for Calon Lân to be longer? Of course, that's a no-brainer but at the same time some stories and authors only need a novella to tell their characters' journeys and that's what Elin Gregory brings us: a wonderful story of discovery.  Another element I loved about this gem is that it isn't just about Alwyn and Joe finding happiness but its about all four living in that house, Alwyn, Joe, Bethan, and Nye, discovering what love really means.  I may not re-read this every Veteran's Day but it isn't the last I've seen of this family either.

RATING: 

Awfully Glad by Charlie Cochrane
Summary:
WWI hero Sam Hines is used to wearing a face that isn’t his own. When he’s not in the trenches, he’s the most popular female impersonator on the front, but a mysterious note from an anonymous admirer leaves him worried. Everyone realizes—eventually—that Sam’s not a woman, but has somebody also worked out that he also prefers his lovers to be male?

When Sam meets—and falls for—fellow officer Johnny Browne after the war, he wonders whether he could be the man who wrote the note. If so, is he the answer to Sam’s dreams or just another predatory blackmailer, ready to profit from a love that dare not speak its name?

Re-Read Review November 2018:
Not much more I can say about Awfully Glad that I didn't say when I originally read it back 2015.  Watching Sam and Johnny navigate the whole "is he or isn't he" debate is just as fulfilling as it was over three years ago.  Like I said before, if they just communicated more clearly so many answers would have been discovered but then not only would that make this little gem way too short but not very accurate either.  Nobody wants their nose broken if they got the assumptions wrong and it was also illegal to be in a homosexual relationship so its no wonder they were edging around the question.  Once again Charlie Cochrane has proven her respect for the era as well as her respect for her readers with her storytelling in this little gem.

Original Review February 2015:
A nice little tale of war, post war, romance, and a bit of "what's he after?" thrown in for good measure.  Sam is such an interesting character but as himself and as Madeline, who brought such joy to the men during the war.  Now that the war is over and he's put Madeline behind him, he is reunited with one of the men he met after one of his Madeline's shows.  I just love watching Sam trying to figure Johnny out and what he's after.  Of course, there's a bit of "if they just communicated" but then the story would be even shorter and where's the fun in that?  Definitely a great addition to my library and once again, I was not let down by the writings of Charlie Cochrane.

RATING: 

Neutral Zone by RJ Scott & VL Locey
Summary:
Harrisburg Railers #7
Tennant Rowe has it all, a boyfriend he adores, a loving family, and a career on the rise. He’s sure of his place in the world, and the future can only get brighter. Then one night, in a flash of skates and sticks, life changes forever. Getting back on the ice is Ten’s priority, and experts tell him that it’s just a matter of time.

Jared watches his lover fall in more ways than one, and when tragedy strikes, even the strongest of relationships are tested. Ten is strong, but Jared has to be stronger to help the man who holds his heart. Only, he has to admit that maybe it isn’t just him who can make Ten whole again.

Jared and Ten’s love is forever, but the rocky path to the romantic Christmas Jared had planned may be hard to travel.

Original Review November 2018:
When Tennant Rowe finds himself injured with a long road ahead to recovery and regaining his life on the ice, it is going to take everything he has to get there, including patience.  Jared Madsen watches the man he loves battle towards recovery and he realizes that time and patience is needed from everyone but does he have strength to standby and let Ten do this while everyone turns to him for answers without breaking himself?  Can the romantic Christmas Jared has in mind help heal both mens' minds?

Who doesn't love a holiday novella in one of their favorite series?  When I heard that RJ Scott & VL Locey was going to do a Christmas novella in the Harrisburg Railers I knew it would be a winner, how can it not with them at the helm?  Which means I went in with high expectations and that isn't always a good thing when it comes to art and entertainment, you don't want to start something expecting a certain level and then if it doesn't match your anticipation then suddenly you feel disappointed or let down either in the artists or yourself.  WELL!  I need not have worried because there wasn't an ounce of disappointment or let down in sight!  Nope, Neutral Zone is all good in all ways, a definite win-win.

I won't reveal anything about the fight Ten has to come back or what put him in that position to begin with for those who are reading my review and haven't yet read Goal Line(Harrisburg Railers #6) or Ryker, the first in the authors' spin-off series, Owatonna U.  I will say that Ten is still the tenacious and spirited young man we first met in Changing Lines and Jared is still the coach who loves him.  They may find themselves on a path that neither saw coming but at the heart it hasn't changed them, its just made certain things a bit more clear.

One thing I do want to mention on a personal note, as someone who was at my mom's bedside everyday when she was in the hospital for the better part of 8 months back in 2007, the frustrations and inner turmoil that both Ten and Jared deal with are written pretty spot on and done so with respect that can often be overlooked or over-dramatized in fiction and for that I want to say a huge "Thank You" to RJ Scott and VL Locey.

We get to see many of the series favorites pop up here and there and in doing so if you haven't already guessed by this point you will now, the Railers are more than just a team they are a family.  The fact that this is a Christmas novella only heightens the love.  So much goodness from beginning to end.  For those who have not read Harrisburg Railers from book one, I highly recommend starting from the beginning.  Will you enjoy Neutral Zone if you just start with this holiday tale? Of course. Will you be lost? Probably not. Will you be missing huge entertaining chunks? Definitely.  For the most part each entry is a "separate" tale because they are different pairings but as I said, the Railers are a family not just a team so the series is connected by more than just playing for the same hockey team.

RATING:

From These Ashes by Davidson King
Summary:
December Book of the Month
Haven Hart Universe #4
A product of his past, Black spends half his time saving lives and the other half taking them. Every day, a hard choice must be made and he’s the man to make it. Long ago, he vowed to never love again; one-night stands with a willing body was all he ever needed. But along came Quill, and Black’s life is irrevocably changed. He never expects something as simple as Quill’s persistence to alter the way he not only sees the world, but how he lives it.

Quill has bad taste in men and equally horrible luck. Growing up wasn’t easy, surviving is even harder. When his past and present collide, he’s convinced he’ll finally witness his own destruction. But when an unlikely antihero steps in to protect him, his life is turned on its head. He’s spent months flirting with the man of his dreams and hoping he’d take notice. But it turns out, being on Black’s radar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and his idea of protection varies greatly from Quill’s.

Unknowingly sharing the same goal—burying their own pasts deeper than the fires of hell can reach—they’re both unaware that jumping into that fire will do more than ignite their feelings, it could lead to their own demise. Will Black and Quill be consumed by the flames, or from these ashes, will they find their own happily ever after?

Original Review December 2018:
Black closed his heart off to more than one night stands years ago but a chance meeting could change that.  Quill has spent his life surviving but never quite living than a moment of timing changes that.  When Black and Quill's worlds collide will they be able to resist the changes they face?  Will they even be able to survive before they have the opportunity to rise again?

Davidson King has done it again!  I really find myself at a loss as to what to say and not give anything away.  Haven Hart Universe just keeps getting more and more interesting.  I'm not sure which intrigued me more: Black's gruffness hiding his heart underneath or Quill's fears hiding behind his peppiness.  On the surface, not only are these two polar opposites but they really shouldn't even exist in the same universe let alone interact but then you get to meet them and I mean really meet them and you realize they are perfect together.  Looks don't determine the man and both Black and Quill have weaknesses and strengths that have made them into who they let the world see which is why they balance each other out, that is if they let the other one in to see the real person and for that you have to read From these Ashes yourself.  I'm not even going to attempt to touch on the action/mystery/thriller side of the story because . . . well just . . . WOW! . . . and I'll leave it at that: WOW! and DOUBLE WOW! and a HOLY HANNAH BATMAN! for good measure😉. Oh, and it is set at Christmas so what more can you ask for?

I must be honest, Black and Quill are probably my least favorite of the pairings so far in Haven Hart.  Now, having said that, if I was to actually rate the couples the difference between all four would be only about .93.  It's kind of like me admitting that The Phantom Menace is my least favorite of the Star Wars films and yet of the 8 main saga films so far, all 8 are in my Top 15 Films of All Time so TPM still ranks pretty darn high and that is exactly what Black, Quill, and their journey in From These Ashes do: rank pretty damn high on my "Fiction Fantastical" list.  As the Haven Hart Universe continues to grow and more of the characters are revealed so does the talent of storyteller Davidson King.  Since I mentioned it you are probably asking why Black and Quill are #4?  I could be superficial and say its Black's hair(I'm not much for long hair in men, just doesn't tick my boxes) but I'm not that superficial.  Truthfully it really comes down to just the timing.  Had they been the center of book 1 then they would most likely be my favorite.  It happens almost 99% of the time when a series focuses on different pairings in each installment, the first is always my favorite.

One of the things I love most about the Haven Hart Universe is, yes these situations and people are not the kind of thing every town or city faces but at the same time the characters are so genuine and real you actually feel like you could meet them pumping gas, dropping off Christmas packages at the post office, or waiting in line to get your morning hot chocolate(sorry I'm just not a coffee person😉).  So no matter who is your favorite in this series you will never be disappointed, the author's talent for storytelling will never leave you wanting.  A true gem and classic in the making.

If you are asking can you start with From these Ashes, I suppose technically you could since each entry features a new couple but I highly recommend starting from the beginning.  Characters, situations, plot points can pop up and carry over though Davidson King does a pretty good job of "recapping" so you aren't lost but it just flows better in order.  Personally, I can't imagine visiting Haven Hart in any order other than it was published.  And yes, I said "visiting" not "reading" because you find yourself getting so sucked in that you reach for a tissue or drink(trust me you will need both for happy and sad times) you expect to find the characters sitting next to you.  So sit down, buckle up, and hold on because you are definitely heading for a bumpy but exciting journey.

RATING: 

Christmas Angel by Eli Easton
Summary:
The Christmas Angel #1
When John Trent, a dedicated member of the new Bow Street Runners, finds an exquisite carved angel floating in the Thames, he can’t stop thinking about it. He tracks down its creator, a sad and quiet young sculptor. But neither the angel nor the sculptor is done with John just yet. The blasted angel refuses to leave him be, behaving not at all like an inanimate object should.

Alec Allston is resigned to the fact that his love will ever be a river that flows out and never flows in. All he wanted to do was create a special gift so that a small part of himself could be with his unattainable and noble beloved, always. But when the gift keeps showing back up at his shop in the hands of a windblown and rugged thief-taker, Alec will need to reconsider his conviction that love is destined to remain an ethereal ideal.

This book is one of seven stories which can all be read and enjoyed in any order.

Original Review December 2018:
When John Trent found a carved angel floating in the Thames he never expected it would change his life.  As a member of the Bow Street Runners he knows how to locate people and solve puzzles so locating the angel's creator is not too difficult.  Once he hands the angel over to Alec Allston he figures that is the end of it but it resurfaces.  It seems the angel is not done with either man.  Will the angel bring happiness, holiday cheer, and possibly more to John and Alec?

First, I just want to say what an incredibly fun, clever, and creative holiday series: The Christmas Angel has the potential for so much holiday fun-ness, I haven't read them all but I can't wait to dive in to each entry.  Second, Eli Easton has never created a holiday story that I didn't love and Christmas Angel is no different, she has once again proven she is a Holiday Romance Master.

I won't say too much about the story, it may be the must-have-HEA-ending that is pretty much required for holiday romances but it is the hows, whys, whens, and wheres the men face getting from point A to point Z that makes John and Alec's journey so memorable and heartwarming.  As for the secondary characters residing in the boarding house where John lives, they are an eclectic bunch that will make you smile, laugh, and just feel good.

What's not to love about Christmas Angel?  It ticks all my book-loving boxes: historical, romance, Christmas, drama, heat, and plenty of heart.  If you normally steer well clear of anything historical, I truly implore you to give this gem a try, yes it is set in the past and the author does a spot on job of getting the era right but at the core of Alec and John's journey is the romance and their connection so you would be missing a great story if you skipped it simply because it is set in 1750s England instead of 2018.  Christmas Angel is a holiday-classic-to-be and definitely one I'll be revisiting for years to come.

RATING: 

Home for Christmas by RJ Scott
Summary:
Texas #9
Can Connor show River a real family Christmas?

When Connor finds River on the roof of the campus admin building, he doesn’t know what to do. His friend is drunk, and shouting into a snowstorm, a bottle of vodka in his hand. The easy part is getting River down; the hard part is insisting River comes home with Connor for Christmas.

River doesn’t have a family, or any place outside of college that he calls home. Not that it matters to him; he’s happy being alone for Christmas in his budget motel, watching reruns of Elf. Only, Connor keeps telling wildly improbable stories of the perfect family celebrations at his parents’ ranch in Texas, and it’s wearing River down. He didn’t ask to be kidnapped. He didn’t want to fall in love with the entire Campbell-Hayes family. But he does.

From one Christmas to the next. This is Connor’s year to rescue River, and himself, for them both to mess things up, make things right, fall in lust and finally, for Connor to show the man he loves what being part of a family can mean.

Original Review December 2018:
Finding River drunk on the roof was the last thing Connor expected to see as he was preparing to head home to the Double D for the Christmas holiday but once he sees him in that state he can't just leave him.  River doesn't want to spend the holiday with Connor's happy family but once he arrives in Texas will he open himself up to the welcoming environment of the Campbell-Hayes family and let man in or will he return to Denver as soon as he can?  Will Connor be able to show River that love is possible and that he's not just a charity case?

It's a new Texas story!!!! YAY!!!! EEEP!!!! HOLY HANNAH BATMAN!!!! and a thousand other catchphrases that express pure joy!  Okay, I got that out now on to the story. 😉😉

When I heard we were going to be visiting the Double D again, my first thought: Jack and Riley! Yes, they are here as are many in the Double D universe and that alone makes this a winner.  But Home for Christmas is so much more.  The old familiars are there, the land, the horses, but this is Connor's journey.  What is it about the Texas series that makes them so amazing?  Is it the land, the Double D, the characters, the horses?  It is all that put together and so much more than words can say.  As a farmer's daughter I can attest to how the land has a way of giving a person(in this case River) a chance to relax, to just stop and breathe.  As with so many in this series, River needs more than relaxing but being able to breathe, to take stock, to see what makes Connor Connor, also gives River a chance to see who is looking back at him in the mirror.  Basically, the Double D may not be what River wants but at that point in his life, its what he needs and whether you believe in fate or not sometimes life knows exactly where we should be to keep our journey going.

Connor was always the quiet twin but he has definitely found his voice, and speaking as someone who has one of those talkative types in the house it can be frustrating, but there is just something about Connor that even though there are times you know River wants to stuff a huge Christmas bow in his mouth you also know that he finds it endearing.  And just like Connor does, there are times you want to wrap River up in bubblewrap just to protect him from the world but also from himself.  That's not to say River is a danger to himself physically but emotionally perhaps and you can't help but want to give him a never-ending bear hug.  RJ Scott has always had a way of making her characters, who should by all appearances be angsty and over-the-top, real and ones that you could meet pumping gas or buying stamps, Connor and River are no different.

Home for Christmas may be Connor and River's journey of holidays, friendship, discovery, and love it is also the perfect addition to the Texas series.  Seeing the Double D again is never a bad thing and getting a glimpse of the Campbell-Hayes family as they grow and age is a true holiday treat.  For those asking "can I read Home without having read the others?" my answer is "Probably."  My personal opinion however, is to read the series in order but as this is Connor and River's story it can be read without prior knowledge of the others but I personally feel the "little moments" just flow better knowing the family(and ranch)'s history.

RATING: 

Stuck with You by Jay Northcote
Summary:
Two clashing colleagues stuck together for Christmas—will opposites eventually attract?

Patrick has been single since he broke up with his cheating ex almost a year ago. With Christmas looming, he’s resigned to spending it alone with only memories of happier times for company. When a business trip with a co-worker leaves them stranded in the Lake District due to heavy snow, it seems Patrick will have company for Christmas after all. It’s a shame his companion is Kyle, who’s undeniably attractive, but annoying as hell.

Aware of Patrick’s reluctant admiration, Kyle basks in the attention even though Patrick isn’t the type of man he normally goes for. Averse to relationships after being hurt in the past, Kyle enjoys the occasional hook up, but has given up on seeking anything more meaningful.

Stuck together, their antagonism escalates along with a heavy dose of sexual tension until it finally ignites. What starts as a Christmas fling soon feels like something special; but will their tentative connection melt away as the snow thaws? If they’re going to take a chance on finding happiness together, they’ll have to put their differences aside and learn to trust one another.

Contains: enemies-to-lovers, snowball fights, bickering, spanking, a cute dog, a wise old lady, mistletoe, and a happy ending (of course).

Original Review December 2018:
Patrick has resigned himself to spending the holiday alone after breaking up with his cheating boyfriend a year ago but he finds himself stuck with co-worker Kyle when a snowstorm hits.  When sniping turns to flirting and innuendos turns to actions will their Christmas fling ignite into more or will the sniping keep it from going beyond the stranded holiday?

On the surface, Stuck with You could be labeled your typical, well not really enemies-to-lovers but definitely acquaintances-on-opposite-ends-of-the-politeness-spectrum-to-lovers😉 holiday story.  However, at the heart of Kyle and Patrick's journey is seeing the difference between the person and the image as well as letting someone see the person instead of the image.  That's not to say I was always happy with either of them, whether it was intentional or in response to the moment, they both are well versed in "smartass" and need a good clip upside the head.  But as in life, we live and learn so if everything was all squeaky clean and copacetic than Stuck with You would be a very short pamphlet instead of lovely novella.  Where is the fun in that? 😉

From beginning to end, Stuck with You is full of heat, laughter, smartass-ery, fun, friendship, romance, holiday spirit, but most of all it has plenty of heart.  I haven't read all of Jay Northcote's books or even all of his holiday stories but I've never been let down before and I wasn't let down this time.  Unfortunately, I don't have much time to do many re-reads during the holidays but one of these years I will be doing a Re-Read Holiday Style in the summer and when I do, Stuck with You will definitely be on that list.

RATING: 

A Hometown Holiday by K Evan Coles
Summary:
Life in a college town suits Josh Cassidy. He has good friends and neighbors, and the bookshop café he runs with his family is thriving. As the winter holidays begin, Josh finds himself enamored with police officer, Alex Curiel, an old friend who has recently moved back to town. The trouble is, Alex isn’t ready for the world to know he’s attracted to men.

At Alex’s request, Josh agrees to closet their relationship, but the secrecy quickly becomes a burden. When Josh realizes he is falling for Alex, he has more and more trouble denying his feelings. Soon, both men are forced to decide if hiding behind closed doors is the kind of future they’re looking for.

Original Review December 2018:
Josh Cassidy is happy and thriving in his college town family owned bookshop cafe and he has been out and proud since high school.  After reconnecting with old friend, Alex Curiel, a cop who recently returned he has potentially found love.  Unfortunately, Alex is not out and asks Josh to keep their new relationship quiet.  Will Josh be able to live in the relationship closet while he waits for Alex to come to terms with telling people or is there no hope this holiday?

Another absolutely lovely holiday novella that entertains.  One asks themselves just how many holiday romances can one person read?  I don't have an answer because I've been reading them now for a solid month and not tired of the holiday-spirit-filled pages yet.  As for A Hometown Holiday by K Evan Coles?  Holiday romantic yumminess from beginning to end that is an even blend of humor, drama, and romance.  I wouldn't call Hometown a rom-com because most of the humor comes between Josh and his sister that adds an extra layer of holiday cheer.

Keep in mind that as a forty-five year old woman in 2018 I am speaking as an ally and friend not personal experience.  Society has come a long way towards acceptance when it comes to loving who we want but there is still a ways to go and that is where Alex comes in.  I think what I loved most about K Evan Coles story is that it is more about Alex's fears of his family accepting him and not that he knows where the truth will lead.  When we think of holiday romances we don't often think of fear, we think of spirit, helping each other, and Tiny Tim saying "God Bless Us,  Everyone" but the truth is that fear is with a person every day and for some the holiday just magnifies that.  It is easy for me to say how I wanted to shake Alex and scream "Just come clean, the 'what ifs' are worse than the 'not knowings' you're not giving your loved ones enough credit" but that isn't how fear works.  The "what ifs" often outweigh the "not knowings" in our own hearts.

Following Josh and Alex's holiday relationship journey is an absolute treat that makes this holiday short novella a lesson in love, acceptance, and discovering that bit of happiness we all deserve.  Miss Coles is definitely well on her storytelling way and A Hometown Holiday is not only a must  read this holiday season but it is a definite must for anytime of year.

RATING: 

Heroes for Holidays by Charles Payseur
Summary:
Spandex and Superpowers #4
Cody travels from Metro City to the Caribbean island lair of Dr. Devious to look after the place while the supervillain is in space for the holidays… and maybe to mend his broken heart. With Christmas fast approaching, Cody is desperate to avoid reminders of his recent disastrous breakup, and a few weeks of sun and relaxation sound perfect—until a drunk (but very cute) superhero crashes the party by literally crashing onto the beach.

And that’s just the start of Cody’s problems—angry shark-men, mysterious lava creatures, and a malfunctioning AI all make his holiday getaway anything but relaxing. Amid the chaos of his adventures in lair-sitting, though, Cody might find just what he needs—a new chance at love.

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2018 Advent Calendar "Warmest Wishes."

Original Review December 2018:
OMG!(And you know I am so NOT an "OMG-kinda-gal" so when I say OMG I mean O-M-G!!😉😉  I discovered Charles Payseur's Spandex and Superpowers series last Christmas and loved the originality of it.  Well, Hero for the Holidays is just as original, not something you can often say by the fourth installment of a series.  From Cody's landing on Dr. Devious' island to his first encounter with the drunk superhero who crashes while he's sunbathing au naturel to the television show All My Werewolves, everything just made me smile, laugh, and cheer.  Let's face it, superheros and supervillains aren't exactly the first thing to come to mind when thinking of Holiday Romance but Charles Payseur makes it work and leaves you wanting for more.  A perfect blend of rom-com, fantasy, and sci-fi makes Hero for the Holidays a must read, especially if you want something different this holiday.  Can't wait to see what not-so-evil-doings he brings us next.

RATING: 


The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree by Selina Kray
When will She open Rebecca Northcote’s box?

Hieronymus Bash contemplated the question posed by the long, red-lettered banner that blazoned over the otherwise quaint fruit and vegetable stall. A sharp tug of the arm from Callie, his ward, brought him to heel. He’d already been struggling to match her brisk pace, having been dragged from his early afternoon repose in the cozy climes of his study into, of all things, the sunshine, or what passed for it on this weak-tea day.

Rays of piss-yellow sun trickled down over the city, tinting the fumes that oozed up from the Thames. Clouds of smog blurred the distant Albert Bridge into an impressionist’s nightmare. A growing crowd choked the small stage erected just before the river’s edge, scuttling in from both directions of Cheyne Walk like ants over a carcass. A bald man with a white mustache that flapped out to his ears checked his pocket watch for the fourth time since Hiero and his companions descended from their carriage.

At the far end of the stage, a squad of low-rank militia struggled to keep a path clear for the Duke of Edinburgh and his bride, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, only beloved daughter of Tsar Alexander II. The newlyweds were, in the timeless tradition of royals everywhere, unfashionably late to the opening of the Chelsea Embankment, the third and final stage of the sewage system that had transformed London’s riverside.

“Look, it’s Bazalgette!” Callie tugged him forward, doing a fine impression of an excitable hound.

“While I admire your enthusiasm, I do wonder if it’s not a tad misplaced.”

Callie scoffed. “Only you would prefer the arrival of some dippy duke over the architect of this entire endeavor.” She threw her free arm out wide. “Can you not spare a moment to admire this feat of engineering? In the place of muddy banks, pavement has been laid, a fence with lampposts erected, with gardens and greenery to come. And running beneath it, the waste of London, and soon an underground train! How can you be so trout-mouthed in the face of such marvels?”

“Not your most persuasive argument, comparing the face that dropped a thousand trousers to a fishmonger’s wares.”

Callie sighed, relinquishing his arm to chase after her muttonchopped idol. Hiero watched her go, marveling at how much she resembled her Uncle Apollo, Hiero’s long-deceased lover who had charged him with her care in character and spirit. Theirs was an unconventional household, where the lady moonlighted as a detective, the servants were part of the family, and the lord of the manor—Hiero himself—was neither a lord nor owned the manor.

“Come now.” Han, his friend and self-appointed keeper, fell into step beside him. The rhythmic taps of his lotus-headed walking stick slowed their pace to a stroll. “You’re no longer catch of the day with Mr. Stoker about.”

“Perhaps if he were about, someone would defend my honor.” Hiero bristled at the mention of his fair-weather paramour, Timothy Kipling Stoker, a detective inspector with Scotland Yard who shadowed them when there was a mystery to solve but otherwise preoccupied himself with... well, finding them another mystery. His dedication to duty exasperated.

“Not likely.”

“No, I rather thought not.” Hiero pressed a lavender handkerchief to his mouth and nose. Mr. Bazalgette’s innovations would have to work much harder to filter out nearly a millennia of filth, the river being a cesspit into which the city had poured every conceivable kind of rubbish, from human to animal to otherwise. A place where sins had been cast off and bodies buried. A few of Hiero’s personal acquaintance.

“Where has your Mr. Stoker taken himself off to this—” Han considered the urinal murk of the embankment and found himself at a loss of an adjective. “—afternoon?”

“I do not presume to know what impulses rule that man.”

“And yet you are the one who rides his... coattails.”

“Only when he deigns to undress for the occasion. Otherwise...” Hiero huffed, his mood irretrievably spoilt by this line of conversation. “I cannot think where I’ve gone wrong with him.”

“No?” Han evidenced something close to a smirk. “It wouldn’t have something to do with meddling in his work affairs, compromising his relationship with his superiors, forcing him into our fellowship, risking everything he holds dear, and then sharing nothing of consequence about yourself, now would it?”

Hiero peered at him out of the corner of his eye. “Nothing of the sort, I’m sure.”

“Ah. Well, then, it is a mystery.”

“Coo-coo! Mr. Han!” a voice trilled at them from behind.

With a pair of heavy sighs, they turned to heed an all-too-familiar call. A hand waiving a white handkerchief fluttered up and down amidst a dense crowd. A grunt from Han parted the sea of surging revelers to reveal Shahida Kala, the latest of Hiero’s charity cases, hopping with the vigor of a spring hare. Her compact figure contained a carnival of personality.

The instant this bright light had beamed into his study on the arm of her father—who served under Apollo in Her Majesty’s Navy—Hiero recognized her for one of the rare people who could steal his spotlight. So he had relegated her to the least enviable position in the household, that of nurse to Mrs. Lillian Pankhurst, Callie’s permanently indisposed mother. But the long days of attic dwelling and reading Richardson’s Pamela ad nauseam had not snuffed a single spark.

Instead Lillian had transformed from bed-ridden depressive into a semifunctional member of the family. Every morning she and Shahida took a two-hour stroll. They cultivated a rooftop garden. Shahida had imposed an afternoon tea regimen on their household, always leading the conversation as Hiero, Callie, and Han plotted ways to return to their preferred solitary occupations. Dinners were always a family affair, but Shahida’s insistence on more healthful, nourishing fare that conformed to Lillian’s new diet had Minnie, their cook, weekly threatening to resign. Callie was the only other member of the household resistant to her charms.

Even Han, cynical, monkish, seen-it-all Han, danced to whichever melody she played. Hiero watched as he bounded over to her, biting his lip at the comical sight of a surly giant bowing to the whims of a pretty imp, but also to keep from emitting a growl of frustration. He glanced back to search for Callie, but the crowd had swallowed her. By now she’d likely clawed her way to the front of the stage and barked questions at a baffled, bewhiskered Mr. Bazalgette, which Hiero thought should be his formal title.

Schooling his features, he joined Han and Shahida’s conversation in medias res and was somewhat aghast to discover them talking about produce.

“... the plumpest, juiciest berries. Artichokes the size of a fist. Fat aubergines and cabbages and cauliflowers, and cucumbers as long as...” Shahida pressed two fingers to her mouth. Hiero didn’t miss how her eyes flickered down. “Well.”

Shameless, that was the trouble. As if she’d snipped the best pages from his playbook and then had the temerity to improve on his notes.

Han chuckled. Chuckled! Hiero hadn’t seen his friend so much as shrug in all the time he’d known him.

“A religious order, you say?” Han asked.

“The Daughters of Eden.” Shahida leaned in, gave him her most conspiratorial smirk. “And I think they might be.” She didn’t even have the grace to straighten when she spotted Hiero. “Oh, Mr. Bash! Mrs. Pankhurst and I don’t mean to spoil your fun. But if you wouldn’t mind, we’ll stay here for a while. We’ve discovered the most—”

“Impressive cucumbers. So I heard.”

“Mrs. Pankhurst is just beside herself. We’ve big ideas for our garden, but this...”

Hiero was unmoved. “And what is it you want?”

“We’ve done our third crate and could fill two more. The crowd is bit much for Mrs. Pankhurst, so I thought Mr. Han might take us back to Berkeley Square? We’ll send the carriage back for you.”

“As it is my carriage, I rather think it will return for me regardless.”

That got her attention. “Of course. If you’d like us to stay—”

“Let us see these berries from heaven.” With a sweep of his hand, Hiero directed them back toward the stall that had earlier piqued his interest. “Their Majesties will wait upon our leisure.”

A long line of enterprising vendors hawked their wares along the edge of Cheyne Walk, hoping to entice royal watchers to purchase a bit of refinement for their life. One stall lined up its dainty little bottles of oils and perfumes like Russian nesting dolls. A mini royal portrait gallery sold likenesses of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their progeny in a variety of poses. The gentleman scooping iced lollies for the children had his work cut out for him on such a tepid day, Hiero thought. The pub with a street-side stand offering hot tea and cider already did brisk business. A few watercress girls fought against the crowd’s undertow, but their wares looked shriveled as seaweed compared to the glorious bushels of the Daughters of Eden.

Even Hiero had to admit, upon inspection, the quality of their produce astounded. Fat and luscious, their fruit allured like the bosom of an opera diva, ready to smother and enthrall. Their vegetable stalks evidenced a virility that would put most molly-houses out of business. Little wonder their customers meandered around the baskets like lovestruck swains. Their bounty conjured images of orgies culinary and carnal. Hiero didn’t doubt there were more than a few serpents lurking about this tiny Eden, eager to defile a peach or two.

All of this was overseen by a trio of women dressed in immaculate white uniforms that somehow defied the city’s grime. Hiero drifted away from his companions to better observe these wyrd sisters. The tallest was also the least remarkable, a stout but cheery woman with farm-worn hands and hard-earned streaks of gray in her brown hair. She milled through the customers, answering questions and nudging reluctant buyers toward the register.

A skittish dove of a girl dutifully kept the ledger and the cash box, cooing her thanks before slipping some sort of pamphlet into people’s baskets. Her crinkly hair had been woven into two winglike braids that perfectly framed her heart-shaped face. A sprinkling of dark freckles contrasted with her pale-brown skin, all but disappearing when she blushed.

Which she did whenever the third sister glanced her way. “Willowy” did not do this petite, flopsy woman justice. A willow branch would look as leathery and stiff as a whip compared to her wispiness. Near-translucent skin and stringy cornsilk hair completed the otherworldly effect. Hiero almost questioned whether she was really there, such was the nothing of her regard. She appeared to have no occupation other than to pose under the sign in a demure attitude. The crowds gave her a wide berth, and little wonder. Nobody wanted to mingle with a possessed scarecrow.

Except possibly meddlesome not-detectives stuck on a boring outing with friends who had abandoned him for some phallic parsnips and a walrus architect.

Just as Hiero made to pounce, the waif leapt as if lightning struck. Eyes ravenous, mouth agape, hair billowing in an invisible breeze, she stared into the buzzing hive of customers. Transformed in an instant from trinket to spear, her astonishment gave color to her cheeks and heft to her bearing. She appeared somehow taller, bolder, a colossal spirit crammed into a compact package: a genie unleashed from its lamp.

All the better to bedazzle you with, my dear, Hiero thought.

Hieronymus Bash, professional cynic, knew a performance when he saw one. He read again the red sign that screamed above her head: When will She open Rebecca Northcote’s box? But there was no box he could see, and if this woodland sprite was Mrs. Northcote, he’d eat Han’s walking stick. These Daughters had lured in quite a crowd with their sensuous produce. Was she the serpent come to tempt them? And if so, to what end?

Hiero shuttered his natural radiance to watch the spectacle unfold. The pale sister glided, arms outstretched, into the maze of crates, eyes fixed on her prey. Hiero hissed under his breath when she stopped at Lillian Pankhurst. In a state of docile confusion at the best of times, Lillian continued sorting out a mess of string beans, oblivious to this starry-eyed suitor. Han, ever protective, moved to Lillian’s side just as the sister shrieked...

“Daughter! You are found!”

The woman at the ledger jumped to her feet. “Juliet?”

“I’ve heard your spirit call to us these long nights, and now you have come home!” Juliet continued at eardrum-splitting pitch, making herself heard to all in the vicinity and probably those across the Thames. “Welcome, Daughter, into Her grace and light! Welcome home!” She hugged a startled Lillian with impressive fervor for one so slender. Lillian, looking to Shahida for a cue, patted her on the back.

A frowning Han caught his gaze from across the way, but Hiero signaled he would play Polonius behind the curtain. Hopefully without the knife in his gut.

“Don’t fear, Daughter. You are among friends,” Juliet nattered on. “We have come to shepherd Her back to Eden through our good works, and, by your pallid cheeks and trembling hands, I can see that you are eager to play a part.”

“Oi!” Shahida hollered, shoving her way between Juliet and Lillian. “Mrs. Pankhurst gets three square a day, and her arthritis is much improved. I dare anyone here to say otherwise.”

“But her spirit, dear girl, droops like a flower too long out of the sun.” Juliet backed away a step to address the customers, every one of which stood rapt. “She knows how this frail woman has struggled. She has heard her prayers and her anguish. She has shone Her glorious light into her, lit her like a beacon for her sisters to find. She is a Daughter, called upon to continue Her good work and bring about a second Eden!”

Shahida let out a trill of laughter three octaves too high. It effectively pierced the balloon of hot air Juliet had been huffing and puffing.

“Angel with a flaming sword you’re not, ma’am. Sorry.” Shahida locked an arm around Lillian. “Stick to the fruit and veg.” A pointed look directed Han to escort their charge away.

“But I haven’t finished the beans...” Lillian muttered as they disappeared into the gaggle of onlookers.

“Shame!” Juliet bellowed, beseeching the yellow sky. “Shame! It is the burden of womankind.” The customers moved into the space vacated by his friends, and Hiero followed, curious as to how she would spin such a public defeat. “The prophet Rebecca Northcote warned against it in her great bible, The Coming of the Holiest Spirit. Too often we ladies wait upon the actions of others. Are made to feel shame and guilt and worthless when we do act. Allow others to lead us astray, away from the truth in our hearts. We pay the price for the sins of our fathers and brothers and husbands. But She... oh, She is coming to deliver us from these injustices, from our fears and torments. As our Holy Mother Rebecca divined, if we join together, Daughters, and build the garden, She will come to save us all. She will gift us with her light!”

“Amen!” the ledger-keeper cried, having abandoned her post to shove pamphlets into the hands of any who would take them.

“Thank you, Mother!” the other sister seconded, lifting a basket of golden pears for all to see.

Juliet scanned the crowd. “You reap of the bounty we offer, but you do not know of how we labor in Her name. To prepare for Her coming, our prophet Rebecca chose each of Her Daughters with care. And though a shame-filled few will deny Her, everyone is welcome to hear Her message and to contribute however they can.” Hiero swallowed a snicker as she gestured to the donation tin. So transparent. “If you are committed to peace and prosperity, if you would see heaven retake the Earth, then I invite you to heed our prophet Rebecca’s call. And She will shine Her light upon you for all the days of your life.”

Juliet seemed to resist taking a bow, but only just. She gave each customer a final angelic smile, then returned to her perch beneath the red sign. A few of the curious chased her with questions; a ragdoll sag and a vacant stare shut them out. Instead the ledger-keeper, who introduced herself as Sister Nora, gathered them around the donation tin before addressing any queries.

“And?” Han appeared beside him, sudden as Banquo’s ghost. “Showstopper or second-rate?”

Hiero rubbed a thumb over his knuckles. “Better than a pair of poncy royals cutting a ribbon, but only just.”

“Fit for a return engagement?”

“Perhaps. Their setup is commonplace, but she does have a certain je ne sais quoi.”

“Enough to en savoir plus?”

“Time will tell. You know how religion turns my stomach. But their focus on Lillian was...”

“Agreed. That Sister Juliet read her too easily.”

Hiero nodded. “Could have been instinct.”

“Or she saw a mark.”

They shared a look weighted by their years of friendship and experience, a partnership of equals who knew, without another word, how to protect their own.

Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane
First light. A distant sound of something heavy being moved. A thin curtain of rain--the sort of misty, drizzly rain that soaked us through to the skin. Prospect of something for breakfast that might just pretend to be bacon and bread.

Good morning, France. An identical morning to yesterday and bound to be the same tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow, world without end, amen.

I looked up and down the trench. The small world I'd become bound in was now starting to rouse, stretching and facing a grey dawn. The men were stirring, so I had to get out my best stiff upper lip. If I showed how forlorn I felt, then what chance had I of inspiring them?

"Morning, sir." Bentham, nominally my officer's servant but in reality a cross between a nursemaid and a housemaster, popped up, smiling. "Breakfast won't be that long. You and Lieutenant Foden need something solid in your stomachs on a day like this."

"Aye." I nodded, not trusting myself to say anything else until I'd got my head on straight.

"Tea's ready, though." He thrust a steaming mug into my hands. Add telepathist to the list of his qualities. Maybe when I'd got some hot tea into me then the world might seem a slightly better place. "Quiet, last night."

"It was." I was going to have to enter into conversation whether I wanted to or not. "I don't like it when they're quiet. Always feel that Jerry's plotting something."

"He's probably plotting even when he's kicking up Bob's a dying."

"Bob's a dying?"

"Dancing and frolicking, sir. Not that I think Jerry has much time for fun." Bentham nodded, turned on his heels and went off, no doubt to make whatever we had in store for breakfast at least vaguely appetising. I took a swig of tea.

"Is it that bad?" Foden's voice sounded over my shoulder.

"Do you mean the tea or the day? You'll find out soon enough about the first and maybe sooner than we want about the second."

"The perennial ray of sunshine." He laughed. Only Frank Foden could find something to laugh about on mornings like these, when the damp towel of mist swaddled us.

"Try as I might, I can't quite summon up the enthusiasm to be a music-hall turn at this unearthly hour." I tried another mouthful of tea but even that didn't seem to be hitting the spot.

"If you're going to be all doom and gloom, can you hide the fact for a while? The colonel's coming today. He'll want to see 'everything jolly.'" The impersonation of Colonel Johnson's haughty, and slightly ridiculous, tones was uncanny. Trust Foden to hit the voice, spot on, even though his normal, chirpy London accent was nothing like Johnson's cut-glass drawl.

"Oh, he'll see it. So long as he doesn't arrive before I've had breakfast."

Foden slapped my back. "That's the ticket. Don't shatter the old man's illusions." He smiled, that smile potentially the only bright spot in a cold grey day. In a cold grey life. Frank kept me going, even on days when the casualty count or the cold or the wet made nothing seem worth living for anymore.

"How the hell can you always be so cheerful?"

"Because the alternative isn't worth thinking about. Why make things more miserable when there's a joke to crack?" They weren't empty words--that was how he seemed to live, always making the best of things. He wasn't like a lot of the other officers, plums in their mouths and no bloody use, really. The men loved him.

"I bet it's not raining at home."

Calon Lân by Elin Gregory
Bethan put Nye's plate on the table and craned her neck to peer past her husband and through the window. The farmyard, misty even though it was past noon, was empty apart from a few fowls.

"He's run down the lane." Nye picked up his knife and fork. "We saw the post cart. Beats me what Alwyn and his pals find to write about."

He began to eat, and Bethan covered the other plate and set it to warm on the side of the range.

"I'm glad for him," she murmured. "They went through a lot. It's good for him to have someone who understands."

"You'd think he'd sooner forget the bloody war." Nye's mouth was full of boiled ham but Bethan heard the swear word clearly.

"Nye Harrhy, I'll wash your mouth out," she said. "I won't have language like that in my house." She shot a pointed glance towards the crib and Nye nodded, finishing his mouthful.

"I would have gone, you know, but farming –"

"I'm glad you didn't. Look at poor Alwyn."

"Listen, more like." Nye cut more ham and dipped it in the piccalilli. "How many times did he wake you last night?"

"Only twice." Bethan looked to the window again and there was Alwyn strolling across the yard with Fly a black and white shadow at his heels. He had the open letter tilted to catch the light for his one good eye. Her adored big brother, dark and quick, had turned heads, but now he could barely look anyone in the face, even those who loved him. She studied him: his mouth drawn awry by the scars that seamed his right cheek, his once smooth skin like old oak bark, the stub of an ear. He was too far away for her to see the drooping lid that covered the clouded remains of the eye that had once been so bright. She suppressed a shiver and got up to fetch his plate.

On the threshold Alwyn gestured Fly away to her barrel bed in the shelter of the byre then came in and kicked off his boots. He gave them both his usual nod of greeting then settled at the table with a whisper of thanks. He ate quickly, just nodding as Nye complained about the high prices for fodder.

"They say it's all going to France to feed the draft beasts. Better prices from the War Office. And now they've called up most of the men, how are we going to harrow and plant with just us two?"

"I can harrow," Bethan pointed out.

"You've got the baby now," Nye said, "and another on the way. I'm not having my wife out in the fields."

"I wanted to talk to you about that." Alwyn's gruff whisper was so unexpected that it cut sharply over Nye's grumbling. "I have a friend who needs a job. Was in my platoon. He's home, not fit to go down the pit."

"A miner? What use will a miner be?"

"He worked with the ponies." Alwyn glanced at Bethan. "He's a good worker."

"And he's a friend," Bethan said. "Nye? We could see how he does."

Nye turned from brother to sister, his mouth tightening in the exasperated moue he always made when they ganged up on him. "Well." His tone was grudging. "Ponies, horses – all the same, isn't it, apart from the size."

While Alwyn went to find a pen to write a reply, Nye admitted that he'd had doubts about getting all their work done even if Bethan had helped.

"There's only so many hours in the day and Alwyn's not the man he was. We can try this fellow, see how he does." Nye nodded as he put his coat back on. "Even if he only helps about the stable and yard, it will be better than nothing."

Awfully Glad by Charlie Cochrane
A makeshift stage. An audience. An entirely male audience, in khaki. A high sense of anticipation. The Macaronis concert party about to perform. Music starts, curtain is pulled across—to an outbreak of applause—revealing a group of men in evening dress, who take up the tune. The show begins.

They’d reached the part where the comic had finished his rendition of “Gilbert the Filbert,” leaving the stage to guffaws of laughter and thundering applause, and the tenor had come on to the opening strains of “Roses of Picardy.” The audience settled down, lulled by the familiar tune but with the first buzz of expectation starting to rise. They’d been briefed about this concert party by a couple of the officers whose friends had seen them perform before. So far, the advance information had been correct—good singing, good jokes, a couple of things slightly near the knuckle but not going too far.

And now, the much-vaunted and long-awaited “Roses of Picardy.” That song could only mean one thing—the imminent appearance of the lovely Miss Madeleine.

Second Lieutenant Hampson nudged his fellow officer in the ribs. “She’s on her way. I wonder if she’s really as hot a piece of stuff as they say.”

Lieutenant Browne shrugged. “I hope so. I’ve been looking forward to this a long while.”

An agitated “Shh!” from somewhere along the line of spectators put a stop to conversation as the tenor’s rendition of the verse began. The holding of breaths within the audience became palpable, especially when the curtain to one side of what passed for a stage twitched slightly. The chorus came, and with it Madeleine, gorgeous in a lavender dress to match her eyes and a sumptuous hat, worn at a coquettish angle. An outbreak of wolf whistling, a single shout of “Cor!” and more “Shh!”s, mainly from the colonel in the front row who’d leaned forward to get a better view of the trim ankles that appeared as she sashayed across the stage.

“What a peach,” Hampson whispered, staring up at the stage, spellbound.

“Not bad at all.” Browne tipped his head to one side to set up a better line of observation of the trim waist, the pert backside, and the well-proportioned décolletage. Those curves were just what you wanted in a woman.

The song came to an end among rapturous applause, whistling, and stomping of feet. The tenor kissed Miss Madeleine’s hand and led her upstage, where she prepared for her solo, batting her eyelashes flirtatiously at the colonel. She looked like a nice girl, dressed like a nice girl, was rumoured to have no truck with any of the officers who beat a path to her stage door, but there was a roguish twinkle in her eye which belied all of that.

The first few bars of “Home Fires Burning” welling up from the small orchestra stifled any expectations of a saucy song to match the saucy twinkle. Her voice was clear, bell-like, incredibly moving. By the time the song had finished, sleeves were being drawn across faces and noses blown. Even Hampson, who had never been known to show much in the way of emotion—apart from getting worked up over a shapely, slim-waisted form—had a tear in his eye.

“Marvellous,” he said, clapping wildly. “And think. We’re the lucky blighters who’ll get to meet her afterwards.”

Browne laughed. “She’ll never look twice at you. Not with that shock of hair—she’ll think a scarecrow’s come in.”

“Is it that bad? Could you lend me a comb?” Hampson tried—in vain—to flatten his locks into submission.

“We’ll have you turned out like the Queen of the May.” Browne grinned. “Now hush.”

Madeleine had been joined by the tenor for a haunting love duet, one which soon had the audience thinking of home and happier times, far away from trench foot and whiz-bangs. They’d be back to that soon enough, but for now they had a glimpse of something heavenly, and not just in the form of Madeleine’s shapely arms.

Neutral Zone by RJ Scott & VL Locey
Ten
Karma. It’s a real bitch. Just ask anyone. 

I’d left my man and my team behind in Harrisburg and flown to—get this—fucking Tucson, Arizona, to begin treatment for my traumatic head injury. 

The same city the Raptors played in. 

I could open the blinds in my room here in the Draper Neurological Rehabilitation and Performance Center and see the glistening mirrored sides of the Santa Catalina Arena. Funny shit right there. Four blocks over, the Raptors were on the ice for morning skate, and I was here, trying to get my brain healed enough so I could maybe play my game again someday. 

Shit, right now I’d be happy to be able to speak or read normally.

“Ho, ho, ho,” I growled, closing the drapes, then pulling my sunglasses off and tossing them to the bed. Living behind sunglasses and blinds sucked. Headaches sucked. Slurred speech sucked. Seeing the pity in the eyes of my boyfriend and family and teammates sucked. Christmas with sand and cactus sucked. I wanted to cry. I wanted to be back home with Mads, decorating our tree and shaking my presents. I wanted to be shopping for gifts for my boyfriend, my mother and father, for my brothers, and for Stan and Adler and all the Railers. I wanted things to be the way they had been before that night. Tears threatened, but I held them in. Crying only made my head hurt worse. 

So, I padded out of my room and made my way to breakfast and the first of several rounds of rehab I’d be facing today. I’d been here one day and had come to realize that my brain was now as well-known with the neurologists here as my face was back in Harrisburg. This was the place for athletes to come when they were battling CTE-related brain issues. Most of the men here were older, retired players, lots of football players. I mean lots of them. I’d met three other hockey players so far, all retired, all fighting to keep a step ahead of the disease taking over their brains. Sometimes, late at night, when I was lying in bed, I’d get scared for myself and all the other guys on my team. I worried about Mads. God knows how many concussions he’d had when he was playing. Add that to his heart shit and… well, I worried about stuff now. Lots more stuff than I had before the night my head met the ice, sans helmet. 

The facility held a hundred and fifty people, and not all of us were athletes. Lots of patients had come here after car accidents or other catastrophic injuries. There were head injuries and spinal cord injuries being healed. The staff seemed nice, confident in their ability to nurse me back to my old self or as close as we could get. The halls were bright and airy, the food excellent, and the medical staff top-notch. And yes, it was expensive and elite and the cream of the crop. Which was why Mads had stubbornly pushed me into coming here after my initial rehab had been completed. Two weeks at the facility, a couple of weeks back home for the holidays, then back for another four weeks. Then maybe we’d talk about hockey. 

“Hey, you’re Tennant Rowe, right?” 

I skidded to a halt outside one of a dozen sun-rooms. As though people in Arizona didn’t get enough sun just stepping outside? They needed to make rooms for sun? A tall, burly black man about my age ran at me, hand out. I smiled up at him, trying to pull some information about him from my cloudy memory banks. 

“I’m Declan Fidler, cornerback for the Temple Owls.”

“Ah, cool, hey man.” We shook hands. God, he was cute. Short hair and a flashy smile, big wide shoulders and inkwork all over his arms. “Sorry to see you here though, dude.”

“Yeah, I know that.” He ran a hand over his hair. “First game of the season too.”

“That sucks,” I said, then released his hand. “I was on my way to the dining hall.”

“I could eat if you want some company.”

“Totally. Be nice to have someone to talk to who’s under forty.”

“I feel that.” 

He joined me on the walk to the dining hall, which looked nothing like the hospital cafeteria I’d been expecting when I first saw it yesterday. This place was upmarket. Round tables with cloth covers, thick royal-blue carpeting, windows that ran floor to ceiling, flowering plants in the corners, and a wait staff. 

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this place,” I murmured as I followed Declan to a table by the windows. 

“I feel the same way,” he said as we took our seats. “I mean, I grew up wealthy, my father’s the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and I was still blown away.”

“That’s impressive. Did he…?” My brain went totally blank, and I scrambled to find the proper word. “Push. Yeah, did he push to get you in here?” I winced at the slip. 

Fuck this shit. Really. Push? How fucking hard it is to recall a word like push? 

An older woman in a tidy uniform filled our water glasses, then asked if she could have our room numbers. All the meals here were prepared by nutritionists with an eye to the patients’—athletes in my case—unique needs. 

“Big-time. He was adamant about me coming here after the initial rehab. Said that this place would do things to counter the damage that no regular rehab could do. You here for CRT?”

“I uhm…” and that skip again. Fuck. “Dude, sorry, I’m like…” I tapped my temple.

He reached over the table to take my hand. “Ten, man, do not sweat it. You should have seen me when I got here. Barely able to string four words together. Sometimes I still trip up, just like that. But it’s all good. We’re tough motherfuckers. We’ll train our brains.”

“Yeah, train the brains. Cool.” 

He gave my hand a squeeze and then released it. “So CRT?”

Our food was served, my platter loaded with scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, a bowl of oatmeal, and chocolate milk. My meds also sat on my tray. Declan’s food was similar, as were the meds in tiny cups lined up for him. 

“Cognitive rehab therapy,” he said before shaking out his napkin and laying it over his lap. I did the same and tossed down the pills. I had no idea what they were pumping into me, and I truly didn’t care. As long as they got me back on the ice, they could be dumping Soylent green into my body via the milk. Man, that old movie rocked. What I wouldn’t give to be curled up on the couch with Mads watching it again. “Speech, occupation, and physical therapy. You don’t have any big physical issues, do you?”

“Some weakness on the left side, my arm, but it’s getting better. I hardly drop anything now.”

“That’s good. Once the swelling goes down, things tend to get better.” He took a bite from a slice of whole wheat toast. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here eating with you. Cup winner, LGBT crusader. Thanks for doing that, coming out, being proud and gay. I know how hard that is. My family and team have been amazing about my being queer.”

“Excellent. Glad they’re… fuck, I just. Give me a sec. Yeah, uhm, glad it’s good for you. I’m sorry. Sometimes I can go, like, whole days and barely fuck up, and then I’ll hit this patch where my brain glitches out and… shit. Fuck. Okay, I’m going to shut up for a minute and let my neurons… fire or something.”

“It’s fine. I understand.” And he did. I could see it in his eyes. He totally got it because he was living it too. 

I wished everyone else in my life could get it as Declan did. We ate in amiable silence, not that heavy, cloaking pity blanket of quietude that my family draped over me every time I fumbled. 

Therapy followed that pleasant breakfast, hours of it. Doctors and nurses, therapists, reading and tests and poking and prodding. Weights and treadmills and medicine balls. Shoving tiny pegs into tinier holes, pet therapy which was actually cool because who didn’t love a dog kiss? Speech therapy was last, and I tanked at it. Totally blew it to shit with my inability to recall one simple phrase. It made me so mad I flipped the table, sending papers and pencils flying. Then, because I had no clue where that outburst had come from, I felt even shittier. 

“Tennant, it’s okay,” the woman, who was some fancy kind of advanced speech therapist, said as we picked up the mess I’d made. “Temper flare-ups are common. It’s frustrating not to be able to express yourself. We see that frequently in stroke victims.”

“That was uncool. Just so uncool. I didn’t… it wasn’t… shit.” I dropped to my ass, hands full of work sheets that looked as if a four-year-old had scribbled them down, buried my face in the papers, and wept. 

Julie. Yes! That was her name. Julie sat down beside me, rubbed my back, and told me all kinds of reassuring things. 

“I’m kind of done for the day,” I told her, and she let me go. I walked the halls, feeling discouraged and sickened with myself. Once I got back to my room, I called home, needing to hear Jared’s voice. As soon as he picked up, I kind of began babbling. A lot of it wasn’t sensible, and it was garbled because I’d have to stop, think, and then restart. But through all of that, Jared listened and never interrupted. When I was done, I fell back onto the bed, exhausted, battling a headache, and sick to death of myself and my stupid brain. 

“Sounds like a rough first day,” Jared said. I rolled to my side, tucking my knees up, my gaze on that shiny arena where the Raptors were playing hockey right now. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come out? I can get a hotel room.”

“No, you need to work. The team needs you.”

“You need me as well, Tennant.”

“No, I got this. You can’t do this for me, Mads. Neither can Ryker or Brady or Jamie or my mother. It’s just…” I exhaled through pursed lips. “It’s so much harder than I thought it would be. I mean, I knew it would be hard but fuck sake, I couldn’t recall simple words. How will I ever be able to play if I can’t…” I stopped and calmed myself down. “I hate that this happened. I hate Aarni so much for doing this to me, Jared. I never thought I could ever hate anyone.”

“I know, babe. I wish you’d reconsider and let me come out there.” 

He sounded as sick at heart as I was. And truthfully, in that moment, I was close to telling him to fly out. I so needed his arms around me. 

“Tell me you love me.”

“I love you.” He drew in a shaky breath. “Do you want me to come out? Just say the word.”

I sat up slowly to avoid a head-rush and the pain that went along with those. “No, I’m good.” I pushed to my feet and went to the window. The sun was setting now, the mirrored sides of the Santa Catalina Arena glowing scarlet and pink. “I’m a tough camper. My Mom said that to me the first time I went to hockey camp.”

“Yeah? How old were you? Five months old or so?”

That made me chuckle. “Nah man, I was like six. And this camp was in Buffalo. I wanted to go so bad. I mean, I can be kind of stubborn when I want something.”

“I’m well aware of that fact,” he replied. Was he sitting down or pacing? Probably pacing because he was tension-riddled over me. “You were persistent about us.”

“Damn right I was. I knew we’d be good.” I touched the pane of glass as a smile of remembrance played on my lips. “I went to that camp, and as soon as my folks dropped me off, I wanted to come home. But Mom wouldn’t let me. She said I had to be a tough camper and that once the homesickness wore off, I’d be glad I stayed.”

“Were you?”

“Yeah, I loved it. Scored my first goal against Tommy Wayfarer. He got mad and cried.” The lights of Tucson began to flicker to life. Someone walked by my door humming Santa Claus is Coming to Town. “I’ll be okay. I just have to score my first goal here.”

“You will.” 

“Yeah, I will. So, tell me about morning skate. How did the lines look?”

We talked about the Railers and about Ryker and Declan, my new therapy buddy. We talked about old movies and new songs. We talked for hours. Darkness had blanketed the city when I dozed off on him. I woke up a second later, phone still to my ear, my boyfriend chuckling. 

“Wow, you snored yourself awake,” Mads said, then groaned, rising to his feet I assumed. 

“Shit, yeah, I fell asleep.” A yawn rolled out of me. I flopped to my side on the bed, my sight on the desert sky over Tucson. 

“I need to turn in too,” he said around a yawn. 

“Yeah, you’re a couple of hours ahead of us. I’ll call you tomorrow at the same time. I love you, Mads.”

“I love you too, Ten. And your mother was right; you are a tough camper. You’ll begin to see improvement, I know you. You won’t stop until you do.”

“Thanks, Coach.”

“Wiseass.”

“I miss our goodnight kisses.” My eyes were so heavy I could barely keep them open.

“You’ll get plenty when you get home.”

“Mm, loving sounds good.” 

“Yes, it does. Get some rest. Heal. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Night,” I mumbled, ended the call, and then fell into an exhausted but fitful sleep. The bed was too hard, too narrow, and far too lacking in Jared Madsen’s big, broad body.

From These Ashes by Davidson King
Black
I parked my car as close to Joker’s Sin as I could. I took my leather jacket off the seat and quickly put it on, hit the alarm, and made my way toward the club. There was still a line after midnight. The place closed in two hours, why would people wait that long? Well, I wasn’t.

“Can I help you?” the large bouncer asked.

“No.” I barreled through him and made my way into the club. It was like dubstep nation in there and so much fucking leather.

“Hey.” I felt someone tap my shoulder. I whipped around and grabbed whomever it was by the neck. It was the bouncer from the door.

“Not today, Junior. You tell Atlas, Black is here. Now fuck off.” I pushed him away and made my way to the bar. I hadn’t been inside Joker’s Sin before, I only knew how it looked based on Mace and Bill’s description.

I liked the concept and would’ve taken more time to appreciate it if I wasn’t hell-bent on finding Quill.

“Can I help you, handsome?” I turned and looked down. A small guy with pink hair and barely-there black leather shorts had spoken.

“No. Where’s Quill?”

The small man slid his fingers down my arm. “Mmm. Quill didn’t tell me he had a God for a boyfriend. You’re better than most I see him with.” He jerked his head to the right. I followed the direction and there before me, was Quill.

He was dressed in red leather. I couldn’t see below the waist, but the vest he wore was tight against his pale skin. I knew he loved his bracelets, and he had them all on tonight. His arms were covered in red and silver glitter, making him stick out like a gorgeous disco ball. It looked like he had put all of his piercings back in, and I could see when the light shown on his face, he also had glitter on his cheeks.

“I’ll just leave you to it,” the small man said with a chuckle, and I took the few steps to where Quill stood mixing drinks.

He hadn’t noticed me yet, and I got a chance to see he had red eyes and black liner on his lids. He looked like pure sin. I was surprised when I felt my cock stiffen. Until now, I was never sexually interested in Quill. Okay, to be fair, I admired him. He was stunning, but there was a line cut somewhere between admiration and want.  Why was I feeling something now?

“Are you following me?” Quill’s voice snapped me back to attention.

“I thought you wanted me to follow you.”

Quill narrowed his eyes, but I saw how he swallowed as he took me in. He was a flirt by nature and no matter how peeved he was at me, he could never sustain that anger.

Christmas Angel by Eli Easton
They reached Green Park and paused at its southern end to take it in. It was surprisingly well-attended. The broad lawn, with its distant view of St. James, was dotted with couples and families who strolled the park’s broad paths in their coats and muffs, furs and tricorne hats, enjoying the unseasonal weather. Many carried lanterns so that dozens of flames danced here and there in the park in spectral fashion.

“Would you care to take a turn around the park?” Trent asked. “Or would you rather head back? You must be tired after a long day.”

“No. No, please. How could we resist a scene like that? It looks like a fairy kingdom. We must walk it,” Alec said with feeling.

Trent gave a low chuckle. He half turned so that he could gaze at Alec’s face. “I’ve noticed you’ve a fondness for the fairy kingdom. Your sculptures have a hint of it.”

“They may do,” Alec admitted. “But—”

The words evaporated when Trent pulled the glove off his right hand and raised the backs of his fingers to Alec’s cheek. “Not too cold?”

How his hand could be so hot was a mystery. Or perhaps Alec’s cheek was just that cold. But the touch seared him. His eyes watered, and his insides swooped as though his heart were a bird diving into the sea. He had a strong urge to lean into that touch. He swallowed, his voice gone.

Trent’s smile faded, and he gazed at Alec so seriously for a moment. Then he dropped his hand. “You’re not too cold to go on?”

“No,” Alec said quietly.

“Then let’s promenade, my fairy prince.”

That was so patently absurd it made Alec laugh and the spell was broken. Trent switched to Alec’s other side and this time he took Alec’s arm without asking. Instead of clasping him above the elbow, he threaded his arm through and wrapped it around Alec’s bicep. It was a more secure hold, and it brought them together hip to shoulder, almost huddled against the chill.

They moved onto a path, Alec’s heart once again thudding heavily, his mind a whirlwind.

He can’t truly be interested in me that way, a voice whispered in his head. Only it was getting harder to believe. Honestly, Alec was less interested in believing it.

Trent couldn’t be interested in him professionally. Alec had never witnessed a murder or committed any crime. And while sodomy was illegal, Alec had never done the act. Surely a Bow Street Runner would not set out to entrap a lonely sculptor who was minding his own business.

No, Trent had found the shop because of the angel. The question was: why had he kept coming back?

He decided to broach the subject because his heart couldn’t take much more of this. And it was awfully hard to stand on one’s principles and reject a thing if one wasn’t even sure the thing was on offer.

“You said you are not married,” he began.

“No. Nor do I ever intend to be.”

“Because your profession is dangerous?” Alec asked, then cursed himself. He was so used to skirting around the subject he found it difficult to get even close without shying away in the opposite direction.

“No,” Trent said, squeezing his arm. “No, Mr. Allston. I will never marry because there will never be a woman I want in that way, and to force one to live with half my affection would be wrong.”

“Ah.”

It was like a dash of cold water in the face, one meant to wake the sleeper. Trent couldn’t be more clear. A trill of fear went through Alec at his boldness, at what he was very nearly saying out loud. He remained silent.

They continued down the path. Trent’s hand was firmer now because Alec’s legs had gotten weaker and he was barely going on. They passed two older gentlemen in black tricorne hats with gold trim, both smoking cigars. They all nodded to one another.

“Pardon me if I’ve offended you,” Trent said after the two men had passed. He sounded worried, and Alec realized he was not as brazen as he appeared.

“No. No... I.” He kicked himself for his hesitancy. He wouldn’t be a coward now, not when Trent had put his neck on the line. “What I mean to say is, I am also far from a Lothario when it comes to the female sex. I’m not made that way. That’s why I... why I have decided to remain unwed. And to dedicate myself solely to my work.”

“You’re talking about a life of celibacy.”

Alec swallowed. As usual Trent’s bluntness was a little shocking. “Yes. It’s not so rare. Those in certain professions—priests, for example—have abstained for centuries.”

“That’s bollocks,” Trent said strongly. “And from what I’ve heard about priests, they’re not as celibate as all that.”

“But.... If you can keep your mind pure, surely that’s a state to be wished for. To live for art and higher ideas. Particularly if one’s predispositions are not... are not in the natural way of things. I think—”

“Let me ask you something,” Trent interrupted with a hint of impatience. “Would you find it admirable if a man never ate? So that he became skin and bones and got ill and abandoned his duties? And all the while he looked to the heavens with pious eyes and insisted God wanted him to starve to death because gluttony is a sin. Is that something to be admired? Or would you think he had a bat in the belfry?”

Alec pressed his lips together. “That’s not the same thing.”

“Or what about a man who refused to shit? Just kept it all bottled up inside because he felt it was beneath him?”

“Mr. Trent!” Alec gasped.

“We are physical beings, Mr. Allston. We must eat and shit and drink and move and make love. If you ask me, denying any part of our physical nature is not only a tragic folly, but it’s bound to lead to misery in the end. If you want to be happy in life, honor your physical nature, in moderation, with an eye to not harm anyone else, and, indeed, to do good where you can. Art and the church and politics and the law, they enrich a man’s life, to be sure. But the physical self is the base of well-being.”

Trent talked passionately, and Alec had to admit, he made a good argument. He thought of the way William had spoken about denial of the body’s longings as the highest aim, that purity was the only possible state for a man of elevated consciousness.

Yet now a very unhappy thread of doubt crept in. Did William espouse that course merely to avoid intimacy with Alec? Was it his way of holding Alec at arm’s length? Surely, he wasn’t planning to be celibate with his wife. There were the heirs to secure, if nothing else.

Damnation, he didn’t want to think about William and his bride. Tonight, of all nights, he didn’t want to think about William at all.

“But what if... what if one’s physical self, one’s innate appetites, would lead one to acts which are immoral and illegal? In that case surely it’s better to abstain entirely?”

Trent stopped walking. He turned to grasp both of Alec’s arms, as though he wanted to shake him. But he only held him firmly and stared intently into his eyes.

“Do no harm. Does it harm anyone if two people come together who want each other? If they give one another pleasure and warmth and smiles?”

He made it sound so innocent. “But they arrest men for it. Men have been executed!”

Trent’s expression grew pained. “Well I know it. A fellow I board with, Stockbridge, was caught up in that witch hunt in ’26, poor sod. Before that nobody much cared, then the Reformation societies got it in their heads that London was a pit of wickedness and God would destroy it like Sodom if they didn’t ensure that no one ever had a lick of fun again.”

“I’m familiar with the type,” Alec said dryly. He saw them often on the street corners passing out their pamphlets and raging about sin. “They’re terrifying.”

“They are,” Trent agreed. He sighed and took Alec’s arm again and they began walking. “I don’t know if you’ve heard much about their tactics, but back in ’26 they sent agents provocateurs into the molly houses in Holborn and Moorfields and entrapped men, spied on them. They threatened the younger boys with trial and execution if they didn’t testify against their regulars. It was a bloody rout.”

Trent sounded disgusted. Alec said nothing, but his heart was heavy. This was precisely what he feared.

“But,” Trent said firmly. “They’ve found other bushes to beat, and men have gotten shrewder and more secretive, and there hasn’t been a fuss made in some time. One must be careful, but, for God’s sake, we can’t stop living.”

Alec thought about that. “You see no conflict in breaking the law given your profession?” He asked not as an admonishment, but because he truly wanted to understand this complicated man.

“I’m a great respecter of the law. And there are cases which should be pursued. Children despoiled or forced into prostitution, people injured for the sake of another’s pleasure, rape. But not every law is reasonable or fair. Some things are simply misunderstood, minds blindered by tradition. And I return to my earlier point, do no harm.” He sighed. “I suppose you think me a bloody hypocrite.”

“I don’t think so. Not unless you arrested men for doing what you do yourself.”

“That has never come up, and if it did, I would refuse. Fortunately, Judge Fielding is a practical man. He doesn’t apply himself to the cause of London’s morality. We have work enough with real crimes.”

A family with a pretty, round-faced wife in a bonnet, a pleasant-looking husband, and a boy and girl of around ten approached. They greeted the family and received cheerful salutations in return.

What a strange world it was, Alec thought, with so many configurations. Young and old, large families and small, elderly couples, newlyweds, gentlemen who perhaps were bosom friends but would be horrified at the idea of more. And those who got up to things behind closed doors of which no one was the wiser. He supposed it must be so. He and William had carried on their dalliance, mostly in letters, true, but no one had guessed. And who knew but that the butcher’s wife had been secretly in love with the baker for decades? It reminded him of his shop where shepherdesses lounged on tables next to African beasts and King George in his coronation robes was arranged across from a humble field mouse.

Alec had thought himself a solitary figure, set up upon some high shelf, removed from it all. But here he was.

Home for Christmas by RJ Scott
Chapter 1
Connor skidded to a stop.

The cold December wind whipped around his face, ice and snow knifing into his skin, and at first, he couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing.

Maybe he should have stopped, called 911, shouted for help, but it could’ve been too late, so he’d acted on instinct alone. He’d taken the four flights of stairs at a run, reaching the roof and throwing the door open. His lungs burned from the freezing air and his voice had gone. What now?

Why was River on the roof in nothing but jeans and a T-shirt, clearly drunk? Why was he standing on the ledge, his feet spread, his arms wide, and a bottle of vodka in his hand?

When the girl from his floor told him she’d seen River go up to the roof, he thought she’d meant something else. He often went up there to read or watch life go by. But not in a snow storm.

He didn’t expect to see River standing on the ledge in the snow.

Don’t scare him. He’ll stumble and fall. He might jump.

A gust of air slapped Connor. River swayed to the left but righted himself with the casual grace of a gymnast. River wouldn’t fall by accident. Hell, Connor had seen him balance on one hand on a diving board, perfectly still, before falling gracefully and accurately with spins and pikes into the water below. He’d never seen River falter.

“River?” Connor asked, only an inch from grabbing River’s shirt and holding him tight. He saw River tense, but he didn’t wobble in surprise or slip and fall to the ground.

“I canbalance. Look at me.” River sounded so damn proud of himself.

Connor took a small step forward, finally being able to hold River’s shirt, hoping to hell that would be enough to stop River from falling.

“Come down, buddy.”

River lifted the bottle over his head, sloshing alcohol over his hair, his tongue flicking out to catch any that ran over his face.

“Fuck,” he shouted.

Connor tugged at him, not knowing what else to do. “Come back,” he said, loud enough that River actually looked at him.

“Leave me alone,” he said.

“I’m not leaving you on the roof,” Connor snapped and got a better hold of River, hooking a finger into his belt. River wasn’t a big guy, a diver’s body, no more than five ten and a buck sixty soaking wet, but if he fell, would Connor be able to hold him long enough to save him?

River pulled against Connor’s grip, and for a second the world stopped turning as Connor had to use his entire body weight to keep him upright. Something about the action must have scared River. He cursed and rocked backward, but he still wouldn’t come down.

“Come down,” Connor pleaded. “You’re scaring me.”

“You think you gotta save me? Huh?” River threw his arms wide again, more alcohol sloshing over the top of the bottle. “I don’t need saving.”

“I want you to come down.” Connor tried for calm. What was he doing? He should have called the cops immediately when he spotted River. Or firefighters, negotiators? Or whoever the hell should’ve been here. He’d seen things like this on the television, the mediator knowing all the right things to say and do, standing by River and connecting him to his family or childhood or his faith. All Connor knew was that he needed to pull River down, use the only thing he had going for him; the fact that he was bigger and stronger.

“I like it up here!” River explained with another wide gesture. He wobbled a little but righted himself immediately.

“Come down, Riv.”

“Saint Connor tries to save everyone,” River shouted, ending with a hysterical laugh. He was clearly losing control of himself, and even if Connor did have the words to talk him down, he thought maybe he’d just yank River back onto the concrete roof of the building and worry about injuries later.

But River wasn’t finished. “Even if they don’t need saving!”

“River!”

“Who the hell cares if I can balance, huh?”

“I care,” Connor shouted back. This was so out of character.

“Yeah, right, telling me what Christmas and family is like for you, making me see it in my head, and then leaving me here alone.”

“River, please.” Connor tugged him, but River wouldn’t move back.

“Leaving me here, alone, because that’s all anyone ever does. They fuck off, leave me, and what happens when college is over, huh? What happens when I lose that?” He lifted one clenched fist to the sky. “Fuck you!”

Connor had never heard River curse like this, and he was done with holding on to him. So evaluating where they would end up if they fell backward and not caring how much it hurt, he yanked, hard. River tumbled with him, arms flailing and the vodka bottle slipping from his grasp and falling into the tub of snow-covered plants on the roof patio. The two of them fell onto the roof, Connor using his body to cushion River’s descent, getting his arms full of an icy cold man, the breath forced from his lungs when they hit the ground.

Connor enveloped him in his arms and locked his hands in place, fighting a frozen, wet, drunk River. He wouldn’t get free. Connor had his pappa’s height, a rancher’s build, and he was a solid anchor in the wind and snow. There was no point in River fighting, and somehow he must have realized he couldn’t get free and went still in Connor’s arms.

All Connor could think was that he’d wanted River back in his arms for a long time now, but he’d expected soft lighting and mood music, not driving winds and snow.

“What the hell are you doing?” Connor demanded.

“Let me the fuck go.”

“Jesus, are you trying to kill yourself?”

River attempted to wriggle free. Connor’s grip didn’t falter in his hold. With his arms securely around River, he shuffled them back so they were protected by the low wall. He wanted to get them back inside, but he wasn’t ready to let River go yet, and the door was at least ten feet away. What if River wriggled free and ran for the ledge? The idea of River on the ground, twisted in death, blood… Connor didn’t want to think about it. He opened his coat, one-handed, and then pulled River closer, trying to get as much of the material to go over him, attempting to keep them both warm. River’s skin was like ice. How long had he been standing up there?

“What were you doing?” he demanded, but River didn’t reply, only burrowed deeper into Connor’s hold. This was stupid. He needed to get them off the roof, or he needed help. His phone was in the car. The campus was emptying for Christmas. It was ten a.m., snowing. What the hell was he going to do now?

“I have no one,” River muttered, then laughed and buried his face deeper.

“What do you mean? Talk to me, River.”

“No.”

“We need to get inside.”

How the hell do I get River inside?

He imagined struggling with River’s weight, trying to get him down four flights of stairs and across to his room. Maybe if he could just get him to the car, with its heated seats and the warm air blower and the coffee in a flask that Connor had made for the start of his journey back to Dallas. Then he could call someone, the cops or a doctor? That seemed like a plan, a focus. He scrambled to his feet, bringing River with him, and stumbled inside. As soon as the door shut, warmth hit them, prickling at his exposed skin, and he moved toward the radiator, still gripping River’s belt. He let go of him long enough to remove his jacket and place it around the shivering man’s shoulders.

River buried himself in the coat, and Connor went into disaster assessment mode. He’d seen hypothermia back home at the D, and it wasn’t pretty. He remembered his pappa saying there were signs to look for, and when Jack spoke, Connor always listened. He pulled up the facts he could remember. Did River have hypothermia? His teeth weren’t chattering, and he wasn’t talking at all, so it wasn’t obvious if he was slurring. Then, even if he did talk and his speech was slurry, how could Connor tell how much vodka he’d drunk? Connor tried to remember the symptoms. The college hospital wasn’t far away. He could drive there, and they would help.

Why the hell did I leave my phone in the damned car?

“It’s okay. I’m okay.”

“No, you’re not.”

“You can go,” River said dully. He wriggled closer to the radiator.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“But you are,” River murmured. “You kissed me, you got me off, and now you’re leaving today.” Then he hid his face in his hands. “Shit, shit, shit.”

Wait. Was this about what happened at the thanksgiving party?

Is this my fault?

Connor didn’t usually drink that much, but he’d had one beer too many at the party, to the point where he had all the courage he needed to wait for River to come out of the bathroom.

“Can I kiss you?” he’d asked, and River had stared at him, stone-cold sober and narrow-eyed.

But then, holy shit, River had pushed him back into the nearest bedroom, shut the door, and the kiss had turned into something more, hands tangled in hair, the two of them kissing and rutting against each other until they were coming in their jeans. Really unromantic. Nothing more than getting off, and River had left before Connor could even get his breath back. Not the best of outcomes. Then River had ignored him. Not returning texts, no more study sessions in the library, and he’d even missed the last lecture of the semester.

All of that told Connor on thing: River wasn’t interested in anything more with him. But that didn’t mean they weren’t still friends. They sat in silence for a few minutes, River’s face still buried in his hands, and he was clearly crying.

What the hell should I do now?

A Hometown Holiday by K Evan Coles
After work, Josh walked four blocks down Pleasant Street to Jamison’s Pub. He smiled as he imagined his sister’s knowing look, especially after he found Alex at the bar talking with Matt, who was pouring drinks for the after-work and -school crowd. Alex glanced up at Josh’s approach and his smile seemed to light the room.

“Hey, Josh.” Matt set his hands on the bar top. “Alex was just telling me that you’ve been making him listen to your old man music.”

Alex grimaced. “I never called it old man music.”

“No, I did,” Matt countered.

“And I said that I didn’t mind listening to it,” Alex said. “A roommate of mine in college liked jazz.”

“Then your roommate had crap taste in music, too.” Matt moved to pour a pint of Josh’s favorite ale. “Listen, man. Josh and I met on the first day of kindergarten. He’s always been a scrawny, ginger-headed fuckface who listens to oldies and worships the Rat Pack.”

Josh shrugged out of his coat and pulled up a stool. “Now you’re just making shit up. I didn’t start listening to jazz until middle school and I’ve never worshipped the Rat Pack. I’m not even scrawny anymore. It’s not my fault you can’t see past Coldplay and Radiohead. Both bands I like, by the way,” he said to Alex.

Matt made an exasperated sound. “And you wonder why you’re still single.”

“Some people like a little variety.” Josh accepted the pint Matt handed him with a smile. “And one of these days, the right man is going to figure out that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to the old man music. Now shut up and give me a menu, please, because I feel the urge to eat myself into a food coma.”

Matt slapped some menus down before he moved away to take another order, and Alex eyed Josh with a grin.

“The right man, huh?”

Josh smiled. “It could happen. Sorry I was late.”

“I should hope so. Matt started harassing me the minute I set foot in the door, and I’m so hungry I could eat my own hand.”

“Oh, shit.” Josh laughed. “Well, that’s easy enough to fix. How about we split an order of poutine? Would that make you happy?”

“Yes, it would.” Alex’s eyes gleamed. He loved the decadent combination of French fried potatoes, brown gravy, and cheese curds. “But I thought you weren’t a fan?”

“It’s growing on me. Besides, the look on your face every time you eat it makes up for the weird, funky cheese.”

“Okay then, poutine to start.” Alex laughed and ran a hand over his chin. “I sort of dig your music, you know, no matter what Matt says. It’s wild and beautiful.” He dropped the hand to his beer glass and brushed his knuckles against Josh’s. “Like you. You’re beautiful,” he murmured.

For a moment, Josh forgot where they were. He forgot that he and Alex were keeping a secret, and were far more than friends behind closed doors. His cheeks flushed, his heart beat a little faster, and he simply admired Alex’s handsome face.

“You’re the beautiful one,” he said, voice quiet.

They continued like that while they ate—flirting while pretending they were not, almost touching but never quite daring—and Josh’s desire burned hotter with every minute. After dinner, the short drive from the pub to Josh’s house seemed to take forever, and the front door had hardly closed behind them before they pounced on each other.

Heroes for Holidays by Charles Payseur
COME DOWN to the Caribbean, Sanjay had said. Take your mind off things. It sounded almost too good to be true.

Cody’s stomach lurched as the jet’s propulsion pushed him back into the plush cushion of his seat. There was no way this was legal. Not when the small, egg-shaped craft had landed on the roof of his apartment building in Metro City. Not when a pleasant, robotic voice had asked him to kindly step inside before any local superheroes arrived to stop them. Not with the ground blurring below him, the craft ripping a path through the sky, the gentle hum of an impossible engine the only noise to distract him from his rushing thoughts.

Was it normal to think of an ex when hurtling toward maybe-certain-doom? Cody cursed himself and tried to put all images of Craig and his carefree smile and his sexy butt and his mischievous eyes and… what was he doing again? At least he was leaving winter behind, and with it the memories of his and Craig’s last Christmas. Rented cabin in the woods. Boxes of wine. Entire sample kit of lube and toys. Cody shook his head.

Getting out of Metro City was a good idea. No little things to remind him that his relationship had just imploded. No having to see the café where they would go to people watch, or the park where they had once built a snow fort. Just warm sand and… and… and lair-sitting for an infamous supervillain. Definitely a good idea.

Cody looked down at the landscape rushing beneath the jet. It certainly beat dealing with airport security. In what seemed like minutes, land disappeared and everything was the blue-green expanse of water. He sucked in a breath. He’d never been that far from Metro City—certainly never traveled out of the country—and the sudden change dropped like a weight in his gut. Working in advertising, much of his time was spent arranging ads, for everything from cologne to dog shampoo, that featured happy people on the beach, but he had never even been to the ocean.

And with that, the gravity of the situation finally sank in. What was he doing? On a jet bound for the island fortress of Dr. Rex Devious, one of the most nefarious villains the world had ever known. And okay, so, yes, Devious was also the boyfriend of Sanjay, one of Cody’s dearest friends, but still. This was in an unsanctioned aircraft probably breaking dozens of international laws, which made Cody a criminal now, too, and all for what? Why had he agreed—

“Onboard scanning indicates a spike in heart rate,” a robotic voice said, cutting off his racing thoughts.


Selina Kray
Selina Kray is the nom de plume of an author and English editor. Professionally she has covered all the artsy-fartsy bases, having worked in a bookstore, at a cinema, in children’s television, and in television distribution, up to her latest incarnation as a subtitle editor and grammar nerd (though she may have always been a grammar nerd). A self-proclaimed geek and pop culture junkie who sometimes manages to pry herself away from the review sites and gossip blogs to write fiction of her own, she is a voracious consumer of art with both a capital and lowercase A.

Selina’s aim is to write genre-spanning romances with intricate plots, complex characters, and lots of heart. Whether she has achieved this goal is for you, gentle readers, to decide. At present she is hard at work on future novels at home in Montreal, Quebec, with her wee corgi serving as both foot warmer and in-house critic.

If you’re interested in receiving Selina’s newsletter and being the first to know when new books are released, plus getting sneak peeks at upcoming novels, please sign up at her website.

Charlie Cochrane
As Charlie Cochrane couldn't be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice - like managing a rugby team - she writes. Her favourite genre is gay fiction, predominantly historical romances/mysteries, but she's making an increasing number of forays into the modern day. She's even been known to write about gay werewolves - albeit highly respectable ones.

Her Cambridge Fellows series of Edwardian romantic mysteries were instrumental in seeing her named Speak Its Name Author of the Year 2009. She’s a member of both the Romantic Novelists’ Association and International Thriller Writers Inc.

Happily married, with a house full of daughters, Charlie tries to juggle writing with the rest of a busy life. She loves reading, theatre, good food and watching sport. Her ideal day would be a morning walking along a beach, an afternoon spent watching rugby and a church service in the evening.

Elin Gregory
Elin Gregory lives in South Wales and works in a museum in a castle built on the edge of a Roman Fort! She reckons that's a pretty cool job.

Elin usually writes on historical subjects, and enjoys weaving the weird and wonderful facts she comes across in her research into her plots. She likes her heroes hard as nails but capable of tenderness when circumstances allow. Often they are in danger, frequently they have to make hard choices, but happy endings are always assured.

Current works in progress include one set during the Great War, another in WW2, one set in the Dark Ages and a series of contemporary romances set in a small town on the Welsh border.

RJ Scott
USA Today bestselling author RJ Scott writes stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and most importantly, a happily ever after.

RJ Scott is the author of over one hundred romance books, writing emotional stories of complicated characters, cowboys, millionaire, princes, and the men who get mixed up in their lives. RJ is known for writing books that always end with a happy ever after. She lives just outside London and spends every waking minute she isn’t with family either reading or writing.

The last time she had a week’s break from writing she didn’t like it one little bit, and she has yet to meet a bottle of wine she couldn’t defeat.

She’s always thrilled to hear from readers, bloggers and other writers. Please contact via the links below.

VL Locey
V.L. Locey loves worn jeans, yoga, belly laughs, reading and writing lusty tales, Greek mythology, the New York Rangers, comic books, and coffee. (Not necessarily in that order.) She shares her life with her husband, her daughter, two dogs, two cats, a flock of assorted domestic fowl, and three Jersey steers.

When not writing spicy romances, she enjoys spending her day with her menagerie in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania with a cup of fresh java in hand. She can also be found online on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and GoodReads.

Davidson King
Davidson King, always had a hope that someday her daydreams would become real-life stories. As a child, you would often find her in her own world, thinking up the most insane situations. It may have taken her awhile, but she made her dream come true with her first published work, Snow Falling.

When she’s not writing you can find her blogging away on Diverse Reader, her review and promotional site. She managed to wrangle herself a husband who matched her crazy and they hatched three wonderful children.

If you were to ask her what gave her the courage to finally publish, she’d tell you it was her amazing family and friends. Support is vital in all things and when you’re afraid of your dreams, it will be your cheering section that will lift you up.

Eli Easton
Having been, at various times and under different names, a minister’s daughter, a computer programmer, a game designer, the author of paranormal mysteries, a fan fiction writer, and organic farmer, Eli has been a m/m romance author since 2013. She has over 30 books published.

Eli has loved romance since her teens and she particular admires writers who can combine literary merit, genuine humor, melting hotness, and eye-dabbing sweetness into one story. She promises to strive to achieve most of that most of the time. She currently lives on a farm in Pennsylvania with her husband, bulldogs, cows, a cat, and lots of groundhogs.

In romance, Eli is best known for her Christmas stories because she’s a total Christmas sap. These include “Blame it on the Mistletoe”, “Unwrapping Hank” and “Merry Christmas, Mr. Miggles”. Her “Howl at the Moon” series of paranormal romances featuring the town of Mad Creek and its dog shifters has been popular with readers. And her series of Amish-themed romances, Men of Lancaster County, has won genre awards.

Jay Northcote
Jay lives just outside Bristol in the West of England. He comes from a family of writers, but always used to believe that the gene for fiction writing had passed him by. He spent years only ever writing emails, articles, or website content.

One day, Jay decided to try and write a short story—just to see if he could—and found it rather addictive. He hasn’t stopped writing since.

Jay writes contemporary romance about men who fall in love with other men. He has five books published by Dreamspinner Press, and also self-publishes under the imprint Jaybird Press. Many of his books are now available as audiobooks.

Jay is transgender and was formerly known as she/her.

K Evan Coles
K. Evan Coles is a mother and tech pirate by day and a writer by night. She is a dreamer who, with a little hard work and a lot of good coffee, coaxes words out of her head and onto paper.

K. lives in the northeast United States, where she complains bitterly about the winters, but truly loves the region and its diverse, tenacious and deceptively compassionate people. You’ll usually find K. nerding out over books, movies and television with friends and family. She’s especially proud to be raising her son as part of a new generation of unabashed geeks.

K.’s books explore LGBTQ+ romance in contemporary settings.

Charles Payseur
Charles Payseur lives and writes in the frozen reaches of Wisconsin, where he enjoys the craft beer and excellent cheeses of the area a bit more than is strictly healthy. Along with his partner and growing herd of pets, he avoids doing household projects by reading and writing, and his short fiction and poetry has been published or is forthcoming at Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine, and Lightspeed Magazine, among others.


Selina Kray
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
GOOGLE+  /  B&N  /  KOBO
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS

Charlie Cochrane
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
KOBO  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  AUTOGRAPH  /  MLR
 RIPTIDE  /  iTUNES  /  AUDIBLE  /  SMASHWORDS
CARINA  /  B&N  /  AMAZON  / GOODREADS
EMAIL:  cochrane.charlie2@googlemail.com 

Elin Gregory
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  BLOG
MANIFOLD PRESS  /  KOBO  /  B&N
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS

RJ Scott
B&N  /  INSTAGRAM  /  TUMBLR
AUDIBLE  /  FB GROUP  /  PINTEREST
BOOKBUB  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: rj@rjscott.co.uk

VL Locey
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS

Davidson King
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
AUDIBLE  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS 

Eli Easton
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
B&N  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  iTUNES
KOBO  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: eli@elieaston.com 

Jay Northcote
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  FB FRIEND
WEBSITE  /  NEWSLETTER  /  KOBO
iTUNES  / AUDIBLE  /  TUMBLR
B&N  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: jaynorthcote@gmail.com 

K Evan Coles
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
FB FRIEND  /  INSTAGRAM  /  iTUNES  /  BOOKBUB
TUMBLR  /  PINTEREST  /  B&N  /  AMAZON
EMAIL: coles.k.evan@gmail.com 

Charles Payseur
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  BLOG
KOBO  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  iTUNES
GOOGLE+  /  B&N  /  AMAZON
EMAIL: gipps1986@gmail.com



The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree by Selina Kray
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOODREADS TBR

Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane
B&N  /  AUDIBLE  /  iTUNES AUDIO
iTUNES  /  KOBO  /  GOOGLE PLAY

Calon Lân by Elin Gregory

Awfully Glad by Charlie Cochrane
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  GOODREADS TBR

Neutral Zone by RJ Scott & VL Locey
B&N  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS

From These Ashes by Davidson King
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  GOODREADS TBR

Christmas Angel by Eli Easton

Home for Christmas by RJ Scott

Stuck with You by Jay Northcote

A Hometown Holiday by K Evan Coles

Heroes for Holidays by Charles Payseur